When William Shakespeare wrote his plays, he didn´t do it for any random actors, but specifically for his own company – first called The Lord Chamberlain´s Men and after the accession of James I The King´s Men – and most likely with the different actors in mind for specific parts in each plays.
In the company there was also a “clown”, the one to get the particularly comical parts, and the first one of these was William – or Will – Kempe.
It isn´t known for certain where Will Kempe was born, or who his parents were, but there are theories that he may have belonged to the Kempe family of the manor Olantigh in Kent.
Will Kempe started his career as an actor in Leicester´s Men, the company receiving its patronage from the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, and he is first mentioned performing at Leicester House in May 1585 together with the company and he toured with them in the Netherlands and Denmark.
Already in 1583 Leicester´s Men had begun to be slightly depleted when several of it´s members jumped ship to instead join the newly formed Queen Elizabeth´s Men, which had been created on the direct order of the Queen herself. In 1588 the Earl of Leicester died, and the theatre company, which he had endorsed, ceased to exist all together. In 1593 Will Kempe resurfaced in Lord Strange´s Men which consisted of retainers of the household of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. It the very same year the company changed its name to Lord Derby´s Men, as Ferdinando Stanley came into his father´s title.
By this time Will Kempe had started to become known, both to the audience and his fellow actors as a great comical talent, and he stayed with Lord Stange´s/Lord Derby´s Men for only a year, and joined The Lord Chamberlain´s Men in 1594 where just that talent was put to good use in roles such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Peter in Romeo and Juliet and, as already mentioned, Falstaff and most likely Lancelot Gobbo in the Merchant of Venice as well as Bottom in A Midsummer Night´s Dream.
He may also have been the original Falstaff, but this is less certain. In the introduction to the 19th century print of Kempe´s own book, “Kemps Nine Daies Wonder Performed in a Daunce from London to Norwich”, which there will be more about later in his post, the Reverend Alexander Dyce also states that he most likely played the parts of Launce in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, Touchstone in “As you like it”, one of the grave-diggers in “Hamlet”, Justice Shallow in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and he supposedly also had a part in “Every Man in his Humour” by Ben Jonson, written in 1598 and performed by The Lord Chamberlain´s Men.
Will Kempe stayed with Shakespeare and The Lord Chamberlain´s only until 1599, and while the reason for him leaving isn´t documented, scholars have suggested that it was a result that William had had enough of his improvising on stage, and it has been said that Shakespeare made a reference to this conflict in Hamlet, where the following lines can be found in act 3, scene 2;
“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too.”
Others suggest that he left because he had been denied a role in Hamlet.
After the departure of Will Kempe from the company, Shakespear´s comical roles are said to have changed, and there are indications that Will Kempe had a physical way of acting which may have been hard for his successor to follow.
His ambition was to find another outlet for his comical talent, and one way of doing so was to, in 1599, embark on a Morris dance from London to Norwich, a distance of almost 100 miles which took nine days spread over several weeks (23 days all in all) from start to finish, and resulted in a book penned by Kempe himself; Kempe´s Nine Daies of Wonder.
If searching for information of Kempe´s Morris Dance, it should be noted that the year varies between 1599 and 1600, which allegedly has to do with differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, and that notes may have been changed after the fact.
In 1599 Ben Jonson wrote a sequel to his Every Man in his Humour, called “Every Man out of his Humour”. This too was played by The Lord Chamberlain´s Men, the irony being that while Will Kempe was missing from the cast, he was very much present through a line in the play, alluding to his Morris dancing that very same year;
“Would I had one of Kemp’s shoes to throw after you!”
A year later he supposedly left England to tour Europe, returning in 1602, when he joined the acting company Worcester´s Men, but at the same time, he is said to during 1601 have borrowed money from the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe.
Just as only assumptions can be made when it comes Will Kempe´s background, this is also the case for when and where he died. He is mentioned one last time in Philip Henslow´s diary from 1602, and after that there is “silence”.
Some scholars believe him to have died in the plague in 1603, when one of the biggest outbreaks occurred, but no sources exist to really substantiate this. In parish records for St. Saviour in Southwark, there is a mentioning of “A man, Kempe” which died in late 1603. There is however no way of knowing that this is the right Kempe, but facts remain that he was never heard of again after this year.
William Kempe – Amanda Mabillard, Shakespeare Online, May 31, 2016.
A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964 – F.E. Halliday
The Elizabethan Stage – E.K. Chambers
Shakespeare A to Z – Charles Boyce
The Shakespearan Stage 1574-1642 – Andrew Gurr
Will Kempes Nine Daies of Wonder : Performed in Daunce from London to Norwich – Will Kempe/Camden Society/Gutenberg Project
Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich – Graham Hardy/Wikimedia Commons
Will Kempe. Nine Daies of Wonder – Wikimedia Commons